A Hell of a Storm

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Back when Stephen Douglas and Archibald Dixon (W-KY) went for their fateful carriage ride on Wednesday, January 18, 1854, Douglas agreed to make the Missouri Compromise repeal explicit in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He said it would raise a hell of a storm. The Little Giant gravely underestimated the North’s wrath. Coming at the tail end of four months of rancorous debate in the Senate and House, the Anthony Burns affair (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) both reintroduced to the mix the last great insult to Northern men, the Fugitive Slave Act. In the four years prior the North had engaged in sporadic resistance to the law, even to the point of violence, but the passion for showy rescues of fugitive slaves burned itself out and a conservative reaction took its place. By 1854, the North had lived with the law for nearly four years. The South insisted that the North must and, by and large, northerners agreed to accept the law in exchange for preserving the Union.

Absent Kansas-Nebraska, Boston might still have rallied to Anthony Burns’ side. They had rescued Shadrach Minkins, after all. But Stephen Douglas drove men who once called themselves sober conservatives over to the abolitionist side. With their newspapers full of Kansas-Nebraska and its breach of the sacred territorial settlement for months prior, now came a chance for the North to tell the South just how tightly it felt the bonds of agreements the other section no longer honored. If the white North could not have the great plains, then the South could not have back its fugitive slaves.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Allen Nevins reports that while Burns’ trial went on in Boston, three newly escaped slaves in New York found themselves caught and returned. This once would have passed without comment, as most fugitive renditions did. Now the papers erupted and protesters held a mass meeting. In Syracuse, telegrams brought word that a marshal with a fugitive would pass through on the afternoon train. Church bells rang and a crowd of two thousand stormed the train when it arrived. They found no marshal and no fugitive, but the speed and size of the reaction speaks volumes.

In Boston itself, the Vigilance Committee got wind of a man coming up to reclaim a slave now working as a barber in Vermont. They staked out the hotels and stalked him when he arrived while two couriers raced off, arriving at two in the morning, to alert fugitive and get him to Canada.

In Milwaukee, back in March, a story much like Burns’ played out, if with less violence. Learning that the Milwaukee jail held a fugitive, a crowd gathered and held a meeting right outside the courthouse. They resolved to stake out the jail so no one could spirit the fugitive away in secret. In due course, they liberated the man and his owner departed Milwaukee to duck charges of assault and battery.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Chicago, Douglas country, more than twelve fugitives found themselves protected against marshals and the local militia by an angry mob late in the year.

In the White House, Franklin Pierce received a letter that called him

the chief slave-catcher of the United States. You damned, infernal scoundrel, if only I had you here in Boston, I would murder you!

Just a few years before, abolitionists could barely meet without threat that mobs would break up their assembly. Respectable halls and churches closed their doors to men like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, who preached lawbreaking and threatened the Union. Now all doors opened to them, even if Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution and preached disunion.

Douglas’ storm had come and would not soon depart.

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